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Ad injects partisan politics into Miami-Dade superintendent selection

a protest sign against teaching critical race theory in schools
The partisan ad supporting one of three candidates for superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools taps into the so-called "culture wars" that have reached public education.

The search process for the next superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools isn’t a partisan contest, but a video airing on local Spanish-language media looks like a political ad for a candidate connected to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The candidate himself, though, said he wasn’t aware of the ad and didn’t approve its creation.

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Jacob Oliva, who holds a top post at DeSantis’ Department of Education, is one of three finalists who are set to interview on Monday for the position leading the nation’s fourth-largest school district.

Ahead of the Monday afternoon school board meeting, the Hialeah Gardens-based television station América TeVé presented the video, which features conservative Cuban American attorney Marcell Felipe narrating a pitch for Oliva.

The ad includes the logo for the Inspire America Foundation, based in the Brickell area, which was founded by Felipe. According to the organization’s website, its mission is “promoting democracy in Cuba and the Americas.” Felipe also co-founded the company, América CV, that now owns América TeVé.

Felipe did not immediately return a request for comment.

“The Inspire America Foundation is asking for your support in the important vote to elect the next superintendent of Miami-Dade County,” Felipe says in Spanish in the video.

“Only one candidate is on the path to approve and promote the law of Governor Ron DeSantis, which incorporates in the curriculum a class about the dangers of communism and opposes the indoctrination of our kids, like the Marxist government, like Critical Race Theory. His name is Jacob Oliva. The vote is Monday, and we will let you know who on the board voted for and against.”

Oliva said he had not seen the ad until WLRN brought it to his attention.

“I’m not running for office,” Oliva said. “I’m applying to be the superintendent to work for the school board.”

Oliva said he disagreed with the characterization that he is the only candidate who would support DeSantis’ agenda as superintendent. He said he would uphold state law as well as district policy, looking to the school board to set priorities and direction.

“To me, it’s really about a collaborative process,” he said.

It's unusual to see such a blatant political appeal in the appointment of superintendent. School board members, who select the superintendent, are elected in nonpartisan races. Felipe's ad supporting Oliva reflects the increasingly partisan and polarized atmosphere of local education policymaking.

Touching on familiar political flashpoints in Miami, like how to teach children about communism and race, the ad comes at a time when school boards in Florida and around the country are finding themselves in the middle of so-called “culture wars” that DeSantis and other GOP politicians have waged and stoked.

Board vice chair Steve Gallon called the ad "unprecedented."

“This effort seeks to politicize what should be a non-partisan process along party lines, further polarize certain segments of the community, advance untruths, infiltrate the selection process, and undercut the decision-making authority of the duly elected school board," Gallon said. "Such explicit, divisive actions must be denounced."

The other finalists for the position include Jose Dotres, who spent three decades as a teacher, principal and district administrator with the district before leaving last year for a deputy superintendent position in Collier County.

Rafaela Espinal is also vying for the job. A three-decade educator herself, Espinal has spent her career in New York City public schools. She is also a finalist for superintendent of Broward County Public Schools.

Broward board members are also scheduled to meet next week, on Tuesday, to begin narrowing down the eight finalists for its top job.

Tim Padgett and Leslie Ovalle contributed reporting for this story.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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